A key federal advisory panel this week is
expected to begin considering an unprecedented
ban on salmon fishing in California in response
to an alarming collapse of a signature fishery.
Salmon populations are depressed from the Bay
Area to Washington state, but the problem is
particularly acute for California's most
productive run -- the Sacramento River fall run,
which produces more than 80 percent of the
salmon caught off the California coast.
Not only did numbers plunge steeply and
unexpectedly last year, but a key indicator
suggests things could be much worse a year from
"The situation is unprecedented and off the
charts," said Donald McIsaac, executive director
of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Though many researchers are pointing the
finger at adverse ocean conditions, McIsaac and
others say fluctuations in the ocean's currents
and surface temperatures alone do not explain
And that is focusing renewed attention on the
Delta and California's water delivery system,
which is already being blamed at least partially
for the ongoing collapse of several other fish
"I don't think you can say it's just ocean,"
McIsaac cautioned that the cause of the
salmon collapse remains a mystery and that
researchers have a list of 46 potential factors
That list includes everything from disease,
hatchery problems and an increase in predators
to water diversions and a possible connection
between the salmon collapse and the Delta's
ongoing ecological crisis.
"People will be looking at that," he said,
adding, "There's no obvious single smoking gun."
The fishery management council, which meets
through Friday in Sacramento, is expected to
discuss the California salmon collapse on
Tuesday with the goal of proposing three options
for the fishing season by the end of the week. A
final decision is expected during its April
meeting in Seattle.
It is widely anticipated that one option will
be closing the salmon season entirely, a drastic
move that has never happened on the West Coast.
The closest the council got was two years ago,
when the commercial fishing season was cut by
two-thirds to protect Klamath River salmon that
had been battered by poor habitat and upstream
"I don't know if they have any choices," said
Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific
Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "As some
of my guys have said, even if they give us a
season, so what? There's no fish to catch."
"This is the first time we've seen one of our
strong stocks collapse," Grader added.
Last year, state economists estimated the
economic effect of recreational and commercial
salmon fishing in California was about $20
million, a major decline from an industry that
produced $100 million in the late 1970s and more
than $40 million in the late 1990s.
Meanwhile, the commercial salmon fleet in
California, which 30 years ago numbered 4,500
boats, has dwindled to fewer than 600.
"We're not making a living. There's a lot of
guys dropping out," said Larry Collins, a salmon
and crab fisher out of San Francisco who blames
state water managers for his problems. "I'm
struggling to make my payments."
Cause and effect
So far, most of the blame for the salmon's
collapse has been placed on ocean conditions.
Specifically, the Pacific Ocean in 2002 entered
a warm phase that delays the onset of current
"upwelling" off the West Coast and starves the
marine ecosystem of nutrients and food.
Up and down the coast, salmon stocks were
depressed with runs doing worse the farther
south one looked, said Allen Grover, a biologist
with the California Department of Fish and Game.
Since the Central Valley runs are the
furthest south, it makes sense that they would
appear the hardest hit, Grover said.
The Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which was
discovered just 10 years ago, is a shifting
ocean and atmospheric climate pattern that
affects West Coast currents and salmon
McIsaac and others say it is likely to be
only part of the story for the Sacramento River
fish, which took a sharper downturn than those
in the Klamath River -- and last year's return
on the Klamath was strong.
"It's not the same thing that happened on the
Klamath River fish," McIsaac said.
Peter Moyle, a leading UC Davis expert on
California's native fish, said a run of years
with favorable ocean conditions might have
masked problems upstream.
During good years in the ocean, baby salmon
might have had a tough time as they swam
downriver and through the Delta to rear and grow
strong enough to survive in the ocean. But once
they reached the open water, those survivors
were able to thrive.
When ocean conditions soured, though, salmon
were hit with a double whammy.
"It's quite likely that when ocean conditions
got worse, suddenly you got this massive
collapse," Moyle said. "That suggests the ocean
conditions could no longer compensate for
Although Moyle cautioned there are numerous
possible explanations for the decline in salmon,
"You can't dismiss the problems in the Delta and
the problems with the diversion of water."
The number of returning fall-run salmon in
the Sacramento River last year -- fewer than
90,000 -- was the second-lowest ever. It
represents a steep decline from recent years and
wipes out gains made since the early 1990s, a
span in which $1 billion was spent to improve
conditions for Sacramento River salmon.
What's worse is the number of 2-year-old
salmon that returned last year -- 2,000, or
one-fourth of the 8,000 jacks that preceded the
disastrous 2007 return.
There is some good news, however, in that the
Pacific entered a cold phase last year, said
Bill Peterson, an oceanographer at the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Peterson is convinced that the ocean
conditions and the poor upwelling in recent
years is the most likely cause of the salmon's
"The salmon guys, they look to the freshwater
for all the answers," he said.
In 2005, for example, upwelling was badly
disrupted and that resulted in widespread deaths
of sea birds and other problems.
"At the time, we said there are going to be
problems with salmon in two years, and here we
are," he said.
Peterson added, though, that the Pacific
Decadal Oscillation appears to be changing,
possibly in response to a warming climate. The
shifts have become more frequent and its effects
on upwelling may be more severe.
"What we're wondering is whether last summer
is the first of what we're going to see," he
said. "We're getting really strong winds late in
the upwelling season. If that's the case, that
doesn't seem to be a good thing for salmon."
'Where the battle is'
At a meeting last week in Santa Rosa, a few
hundred salmon fishers showed up to prepare for
this week's meetings in Sacramento. Many
expressed uncertainty about their future but no
doubt about what is causing their problems --
water deliveries out of the Delta.
Several speakers urged the commercial
fishers, recreational anglers, ocean fishers and
river guides in the audience to stop battling
over access to fish and instead unite against
the water agencies they see as the bigger threat
to the salmon because of the large amounts of
water they pump out of the Delta.
"If we want to get our fisheries back, that's
where the battle is," said Grader. "You can't
continue taking 6 or 7 million acre-feet out of
the estuary and expect it to survive."
Dave Sereni Sr., a recreational fisher from
Santa Rosa, drew a comparison between the salmon
collapses on the Sacramento and Klamath rivers
by blaming both on upstream water users.
"The same exact thing that happened in the
Klamath is happening in the Delta," said Sereni.
"I'm not opposed to them closing, but if they're
going to do that, they need to address the main
Grader said the National Marine Fisheries
Service, which regulates water diversions to
protect salmon, has been too lax and urged
members of the fishery management council, which
sets fishing limits, to demand better protection
"I'm asking this agency to become
vertebrates. Grow a friggin' backbone," Grader
said. "These years and years of silence are not
enough. That's what we expect next week from you
Mike Taugher covers natural resources. Reach
him at 925-943-8257 or